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U.N. Atom Chief Urges Nuclear Safety Inspections, Tests

Date: 21-Jun-11
Country: AUSTRIA
Author: Michael Shields

The U.N. nuclear chief proposed international safety checks on reactors worldwide to help prevent any repeat of Japan's atomic crisis, a plan which may face resistance from nations worried about outside involvement.

Yukiya Amano, opening a ministerial meeting on Monday aimed at improving safety after the Fukushima emergency, also called on countries to carry out risk assessments on their nuclear power plants within 18 months.

"Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power has been badly shaken," Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a speech to ministers and regulators from the U.N. body's 151 member states.

"It is imperative that the most stringent safety measures are implemented everywhere ... Countries with nuclear power should agree to systematic, periodic peer reviews by the IAEA."

Ten percent of the world's 440 reactors could be checked during a three-year period, the veteran Japanese diplomat said, suggesting power operators could help foot the bill.

He said safety would remain a national task, making clear states would have the main responsibility of assessing whether reactors could withstand various crisis scenarios. But he also made clear he wanted the U.N. agency to play a greater role.

His proposals -- aimed at ensuring nuclear plants can withstand extreme events such as the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima -- may prove controversial for states which want to keep safety an issue strictly for national authorities.

"The director general was very blunt and I think that he made a very bold statement, bold proposals," conference president Antonio Guerreiro of Brazil told reporters.

"I am sure he knew beforehand that some of the specific proposals he made would be met with some reluctance on the part of some member states."

Japan's crisis has prompted a rethink of energy policy worldwide, underlined by Germany's decision to close all its reactors by 2022 and Italy's vote to ban nuclear for decades.

STRICTER RULES

At the June 20-24 meeting, IAEA member nations will begin charting a strategy on boosting global nuclear safety, but differences on how much international action is needed may hamper follow-up efforts, diplomats say.

Russia wants to move toward making the U.N. agency's safety standards compulsory and France has also called for stronger global steps but many other countries are skeptical, stressing the role of national authorities. They include developing countries but also some nuclear power countries, diplomats say.

"We see a certain number of countries, for reasons of sovereignty, are wary of going further in terms of strengthening the IAEA's powers," French Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told reporters.

She said France supported enhanced safety powers for the IAEA, which is mainly known for its watchdog role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

"We are trying to reset the balance," she said.

Currently there are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations, only IAEA recommendations which national regulators are in charge of enforcing. The U.N. agency conducts review missions, but only at a member state's invitation.

Britain said it supported Amano's proposal to expand safety peer reviews, comparing this to the way the International Monetary Fund carries out checks on the economies of individual countries and prepares recommendations for improvements.

"A genuine peer review process -- nobody has anything to fear from such a process -- because we all have things to learn," Energy Secretary Chris Huhne told reporters.

European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger went further, saying a "binding peer review requirement" should be added to an international convention on nuclear safety.

Japanese officials have come under fire for their handling of the emergency and the authorities have admitted that lax standards and poor oversight contributed to the accident.

Three reactors at the Japanese complex went into meltdown when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of some 80,000 people.

"Thorough and transparent national risk assessments should be made of all nuclear power plants in the world," Amano said.

He gave no details of how such assessments would be carried out. Typically experts speak of "stress tests" which provide for theoretical and practical simulations of how power plant systems would respond to various extreme events, such as earthquakes.

Amano said these national tests should be followed by IAEA expert reviews to check operational safety, emergency preparedness and the effectiveness of regulatory systems.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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